By Jim Berkenstock
Like many of you, I find my movements and options limited at the moment, so I thought I would jot down some notes about what we can expect this summer in Door County when the current cloud has hopefully lifted. Perhaps these musings will help propel your thoughts toward positive and inviting prospects. So, grab a cup of coffee and read on ….
As you know, we are celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday this season along with our own Midsummer’s Pearl Anniversary (30 years). We often celebrate a composer’s anniversary highlighting a few extra works, but Beethoven is different. I’m going to do a “Coffee Talk” presentation in June called “Beethoven – In a New Light.” That’s also the subtitle of our season, so I’ve been thinking a bit about what makes this guy extra special. I don’t want to give away the substance of my talk completely, but I could offer a few tidbits.
Beethoven is unique because of his unusual relationship with his predecessors and those who came after him. He happened along at a very pregnant time historically and culturally, and he had the genius and intestinal fortitude to seize that opportunity and really change the course of things. Just as Napoleon was contemporaneously disrupting things, so too did Beethoven.
He left his hometown of Bonn when he was twenty-one to move to Vienna, the preeminent musical capital of the world at that time. He went hoping to study with Mozart, but Mozart died shortly before he arrived. So, he turned to Haydn who was considerably older. Haydn was experiencing newfound fame in his autumnal years, and he was about to leave on his first of two dramatic visits to London. Haydn found Beethoven very talented, but his schooling was uneven. Haydn didn’t have time to put this headstrong youth through rudimentary lessons and exercises, so he dumped him off to Albrechtsberger, a fine teacher for such purposes. Beethoven never got over it. He revered Haydn for his genius, but he groused over Haydn’s seeming lack of appreciation for his talent. He wanted Haydn’s approval and didn’t think he got it. This had a profound impact on Beethoven and particularly on his music.
There is also the freakish way in which Beethoven was influenced by Bach (who died 30 years before Beethoven was born). This is especially miraculous because Bach was almost unknown at that time. How did Beethoven become so aware of, and influenced by, this discarded and forgotten master? This unlikely situation changed the course of music history and seriously impacted some of Beethoven’s most consequential works. We’ll go into this more deeply.
Finally, there is the wealth of material that Beethoven left us to puzzle over, perhaps leading to a greater understanding of the man, his ways, and his music. He apparently rarely discarded anything. Consequently, we have a wealth of letters. And since Beethoven worked meticulously from initial musical tidbit to perfected final version, we have many preserved Skizzenbücher (Sketchbooks) displaying that painstaking process. Finally, there is the deafness issue with its profound effect on him. This not only influenced his compositional process but his whole psyche as dramatically detailed in his Heiligenstadt Testament, an emotional plaint to his younger brothers detailing his thoughts of suicide and the profound disruption his disability brought to his relationship with others. When his hearing was totally gone, he developed his Conversation Books, blank notebooks that he handed to guests so they could communicate with him in writing. They provide one side of the conversation that Beethoven had with many interesting friends and colleagues. We therefore know a lot about what and with whom things were discussed that we otherwise wouldn’t know if Beethoven hadn’t been deaf and hadn’t closeted away so much such material.
There is so much more to cover. I hope you have enjoyed this first of several brief Coffee Chat’s online. We’ll explore a lot more in my real “Coffee Talk” in June. If you’re feeling a little despondent, think about Beethoven’s difficulties, and then think about the summertime in Door County drenched with the strains of Midsummer’s Music. Better weeks and months are ahead. Until next time.